New report examines impacts of COVID-19 outbreak on homeless Californians

State of Reform, March 31, 2020

By Emily Boeger


A new report from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, and Boston University examines potential impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on individuals experiencing homelessness in the United States. The report specifically highlights impacts in Los Angeles County, where on any given night there are an estimated 58,000 homeless individuals. The report outlines the costs and mortality rates if no actions are taken to support individuals experiencing homelessness, and estimates the funding needed for a comprehensive plan.


With the spread of COVID-19, individuals experiencing homelessness are in an especially vulnerable position. “Concern has been raised around the potential for widespread transmission of COVID-19 within the homeless population due to inadequate access to hygiene and sanitation and the difficulty of early detection among a population isolated from health care,” reads the report. “Less widely known—but considerably more important—is the extraordinarily high susceptibility to symptomatic infection, hospitalization, and fatality among the homeless population due not only to their advanced age, but also the accelerated physical decline and mental weathering that frequently results from repeat exposure to harsh elements.” The researchers note that in LA County, the modal age of the homeless population is 50-55 years old, putting them in an age cohort particularly susceptible to severe COVID-19 illness. According to the report, homeless individuals are twice as likely as the general population to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, 2-4 times more likely to require critical care, and 2-3 times as likely to die. The researchers’ estimates assume that 40% of the homeless population in the US will be infected at the peak of the crisis. From that assumption they estimate that in the United States, 21,295 people experiencing homelessness could require hospitalization, approximately 7,145 could require critical care, and they estimate 3,454 homeless deaths if social distancing measures aren’t followed.


Based off figures in the report, for homeless individuals in LA County that could mean approximately 2,800 hospitalizations, 900 needing critical care, and over 400 deaths. Nationwide, the estimated distribution of hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and mortality among homeless individuals is centered along the West Coast, primarily in California.


The State of California announced a series of actions in recent weeks to protect individuals experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 public health emergency. On March 17, Newsom signed legislation (SB 89) appropriating $1 billion to fight the spread of COVID-19. On the 18th, Newsom allocated $100 million in funding from SB 89 to local governments for shelter support and emergency housing, and $50 million to purchase trailers and lease hotel rooms to provide isolation placements. The report suggests that Los Angeles City & County faces the greatest needs for additional housing capacity in the country, with an estimated need of 62,885 new units. According to the researcher’s estimates, this comes at a cost of approximately $1.77 billion. Other Continuums of Care in California with high projected costs to fully shelter homeless individuals during the COVID-19 outbreak include San Jose/Santa Clara City & County ($327 million), Oakland, Berkeley/Alameda County ($266 million), and San Francisco ($238 million). “The COVID-19 pandemic is creating a severe and emergent health crisis for the homeless population across the United States, a crisis that our shelter and health systems are simply not adequately prepared to meet. The current virus, when scaffolded on top of the already present crisis of aged homelessness, as well as a myriad of other factors impacting this population, is likely to wreak havoc on this already highly vulnerable group,” concludes the report.

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